Sandy Berger on U.S.-Israel Relations, the Iran Nuclear Deal and More

December 4, 2015

This past Wednesday, former National Security Adviser Samuel M. Berger passed away in Washington at the age of 70. Berger, known colloquially as “Sandy,” served throughout the entire Clinton administration and was instrumental in shaping American foreign policy during those years. “Nobody was more knowledgeable about policy or smarter about how to formulate it,” President William J. Clinton said in a written statement.

FRONTLINE interviewed Berger this past summer for the forthcoming film, Netanyahu at War, which is scheduled to air on Jan. 5, 2016. In conversation with veteran producer Michael Kirk, Berger recounted the historic signing of the 1993 Oslo Accord between Israelis and Palestinians on the White House lawn and assessed the often-fraught relationship between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and both President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. A firm supporter of Obama, Berger strongly defended the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and the U.S.-Israeli relationship. It would prove to be one of Berger’s last in-depth television interviews.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

On the signing of the Oslo Accord in Washington, DC in 1993:

This obviously was a historic moment. The parties themselves, without the United States, in Oslo, had reached a declaration of principles. [It was] the first time that Palestinians and Israelis had sat together, had negotiated a timetable for a peace agreement, comprehensive peace. Totally without any knowledge on our part.

They brought that to us in early ’93. We looked at it and said that was historic, but there were some things missing. There needed to be mutual recognition; that was not in the original Oslo. There needed to be a renunciation of terrorism from Arafat; wasn’t in the original.

The last thing President Clinton felt was that they [Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat] needed to sign it together publicly, because if they did not do it, the world would not believe that they were committed to it as leaders. And so, we agreed to a signing in Washington on the South Lawn [of the White House]. It was a beautiful, sunny day, a glorious day.

There was a certain amount of activity up in the White House before the signing ceremony. Then, at a point, the president looks at Rabin and he says, “You know, Yitzhak, you’re going to have to shake his hand.”

Rabin looked like someone had punched him in the stomach. [Arafat] is a man he considered a terrorist all his life. This is a general who’d fought four wars against the Arabs. Although it was a man who had come to the conclusion that the only secure peace now was an Israel that made peace. But now it’s coming down to the personification of that. And he stood there for a moment. And he said to Clinton, “OK, but no kissing.” [laughter]

So we then went down to the Oval Office and we worked out maneuvers with Clinton of how — Arafat liked to kiss, usually three kisses. And we worked out sort of football/basketball moves of how Clinton could step in various ways. If Arafat made a lunge toward Rabin, how Clinton could break them up.

But it was a glorious moment, a very hopeful moment and a beginning of a launching of a peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

On President Clinton’s role in the peace process:

He always had a deep feeling and regard for Israel since he traveled there as governor and his own sort of religious views, seeing the role of Israel, history of Israel. But he also had a real sense of the importance of peace and the role that he could potentially play. And he was the only person, I think, leader, who could deal with the Arabs, the Palestinians and simultaneously deal with the Israelis, and neither resented the other. Both the Israelis thought that he was on their side, and the Palestinians thought he was on their side.

On President’s Clinton feelings towards Yitzhak Rabin:

If you look at the last 25 or 50 years and think about people who have made the pivot from warriors to peacemakers, it doesn’t take two hands to count those people – Nelson Mandela, Yitzhak Rabin. It’s quite an extraordinary thing. And I think Clinton was awed by that and quite pleased by that. [He] felt strongly about the region, felt strongly about the peace, and said: “If he’s going to take the risks, I can take the risks of trying to help him. He’s putting real things on the line. The Palestinians need to put things on the line, but they’re basically more intangible. If I can minimize his political risks, that’s my job.”

So that in a sense was an implicit bargain from March ’93 until Yitzhak was killed in September ’95.

On the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995:

The day he was killed, I actually was visiting my daughter at Cornell and heard it on the radio and I immediately got on the plane. I flew down to Washington, got in the White House and went into the Oval Office. And the president was sitting there. He was very somber. The first thing he said to me was, “That young man knew exactly what he was doing.” In other words, he was trying to kill the peace process. That was Clinton’s instant evaluation of what had happened.

We got obviously on a plane right away. Jewish funerals are the next day. An extraordinary day in Jerusalem, a powerful day.

And Clinton knew he had three jobs. One was to express his own deep feeling, that his dear friend and partner for peace had been killed. The second was to give the feelings of the American people.

And a third purpose was to throw his arms around Shimon Peres, who was in a state of shock. We think about the first two, but Clinton immediately grabbed Peres, both publicly, and then they sat down, and they started to talk about how do we move from here. At the very beginning, Shimon really looked like he was really in a state of grief. And as that conversation went forward, he sort of snapped to being Shimon Peres. You know that happens when these poetic ideas start pouring from his mouth, and he kind of kicked in to the future.

On Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first meeting with President Clinton in 1996:

I think some of the meeting may have been one on one, but I think most of the meeting I was there. Bibi came in and his sort of posture was, “Let me tell you about the Middle East.” And he then proceeded to lecture the president on the realities of the Middle East. “Here’s the way it is.”

The president was very polite. The president is always very polite, except when he’s tactically decided he was not going to be polite. He used anger very, very scarcely and very purposely.

It was a kind of unpleasant meeting. It was proper and friendly, but he left and the president [said], “Who does he think the superpower is?”

On President Obama’s initial approach to the Middle East and Cairo speech in 2009:

I think that [Obama] very much wanted to break, certainly with the Bush legacy, from the Iraq War, and maybe the longer legacy of America’s estrangement from the Arab world, from the Muslim world, as he would call it, to recast the United States as a friend of the Islamic world. Part of that narrative is that we’ve been associated with Israel too closely. We’re not independent here.

And so, he, in the beginning, on the one hand, second day, empowers George Mitchell to go out and start a peace process. But [Obama also] goes to Cairo and gives a large speech about the region, which articulates pretty much the Islamic narrative, but not the Israeli narrative; the Islamic narrative of colonialism and larger picture of aggrieved, aggrieved Arabs.

He did go after terrorism and made some pushbacks on them. And then [Obama relays] this Israeli narrative of putting them as kind of a result of the Holocaust. So from the beginning, he cast it in that way.

Well, you know, that’s quite — it’s partly offensive to Israelis. Israel was not established because of the Holocaust. Thank God, Israel was there when the Holocaust happened. Israel was established by a Zionist movement, people wanting to reclaim what they saw as their holy land.

Then, he doesn’t go there for five years. He didn’t go till 2013. [If] he said all the things in 2013 [that] had he said in 2009, it would have put a different cast on this.

On the Iran nuclear deal:

Listen, the Israelis have every right in the world to be scared, alarmed about the Iranian threat. I think that also ought to be one of the fundamentals here. They have, sitting next to them, a country that is rabidly anti-Israel — it’s not just 1979 and beyond of the, you know, Iranian revolution that is putridly anti-Israel; it’s deep in the writings and teachings as you drill down — who are about to get a nuclear weapon. Who could get a nuclear weapon. Who could either use it or somehow provide it to Hezbollah or Hamas. If I were an Israeli, I would be scared to death.

So the question here is not whether Iran is a serious threat. The question is, so what do we do about it? So the options are: You bomb it. Well, you know, that is not a very long-term solution, because you can’t unteach them what they know. So if you bomb them, you know, for three or four years you’ve destroyed it. You’ve turned them in though, at that point, into hell-bent to destroy Israel. You bought two or three years.

If you can negotiate that program, if you can prevent them from doing that for 10, 15 years, in a verifiable way in which we’re pretty sure we can see what they’re doing, to me, that’s the smart thing to do.

So I’m for the nuclear agreement. Not in spite of Iran’s ambitions. I’m for a nuclear agreement because of Iran’s ambitions. And Iran, with a nuclear sword, is a lot more dangerous to us in the region than without it. It doesn’t mean they’re going to be any less hegemonic, or any less a troublemaker, or any less destabilizing. But I don’t want them to have the advantage of having a nuclear weapon or a near-nuclear weapon. I want to take that away from them.

On the future prospects for peace between Israelis Palestinians:

Deep down, I think he [Netanyahu] does not believe that there should be a Palestinian state. But more importantly, he and most Israelis now don’t think much about a Palestinian state in Israel right now. They look around, and they say: “Why in the world would we want a Palestinian state right now? We’ve got Hezbollah. We have Hamas. We have Syria. And we’re going to give that part of the world to the Palestinians? It’s going to become ISIS.”

So most Israelis have basically checked out right now, unfortunately, on the peace process.

On the future of the U.S.-Israeli relationship:

Let me put this in context: We right now think the relationship is frayed [but] go back. So from the beginning of Israel, the U.S.-Israel relationship has always been fraught. Eisenhower had to pull Israel from going in, over the Suez Canal, and he had to pull them back. It was an extremely difficult time. Bush One cut off loan guarantees, would not use American money for guarantees, as long as Israel has settlements. There have been a lot of, you know, ups and downs in this relationship. And the downs have sometimes been much downer than this.

The fundamentals of this relationship are fine. There’s a big issue called Iran that we are disagreeing with. There’s very strong American support here for Israel. The leaders see the world differently but understand that countries need each other.

So this is not a relationship in crisis. And it’s not just personalities of two leaders. It’s two views of what’s important, two views of how important resolving the Palestinian issue is to the overall stability of the region. That’s a fundamental disagreement. But it’s not a relationship in peril.

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